BOOK: You could read The Feminine Mystique, published 50 years ago, and gain valuable perspective on how far feminism has come since then, or you could honor the anniversary — and have a lot more fun — by reading Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group, published 50 years ago on Aug. 28, 1963. You might even gain a perspective on feminism.
The Group follows eight young women who graduate from Vassar in 1933, and make their various ways in the world. The author's blunt descriptions of sex, birth control, deflowering and other topics seldom found in respectable novels of the day shocked and titillated readers, and transformed McCarthy from a tart-tongued critic of literature into one of the wealthiest and most famous authors of her generation.
A graduate of Vassar herself, McCarthy used her eight characters as windows on various aspects of the female predicament in prewar America. Dottie, for example, reveals the sexual beliefs of the period, while Priss represents "enlightened" mothering. Although Libby's literary aspirations are thwarted, she still ends up as a successful literary agent. Polly provides a view of psychoanalysis in that era.
WHY READ? With feminism firmly established, it may be difficult to imagine how subservient and passive women were expected to be prior to the feminist wave that began to swell 50 years ago and continues to wash over American society. When McCarthy applied for a Guggenheim grant to write the book, she described it as a "history of the faith in progress of the 1930s and '40s as reflected in the behavior and notions of young women." Her book ultimately served more as a mirror that reflected back to women of the 1960s and what Betty Freidan called "the problem that has no name" — a sense of free-floating dissatisfaction with the role of women. Although not much of a feminist herself (her early career flourished with ample help from male admirers), McCarthy somehow energized feminism with The Group, which remains an engaging portrait of the time.
MAKE IT: In December of 1963, an ad in Better Homes and Gardens contained a recipe for an olive-cheese "porcupine" — a superb party "appeteaser." Containing cream cheese, cheddar cheese and blue cheese, the porcupine amounted to a typical 1960s cheeseball shaped like a porcupine, with olives on toothpicks acting as quills. Alejandra Ramos, creator of always orderdessert.com, has updated the recipe somewhat, adding cayenne and Tabasco to make it spicy, like McCarthy's novel, with almonds instead of toothpicks representing the quills.
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an email to [email protected] Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.